At a community center in southwest Houston, representatives of half a dozen different civic groups are gathered around tables formed into a square. They're discussing the benefits to legal immigrants of applying for U.S. citizenship.
"My decision to become a citizen is to have the right to vote, and have the security and stability," says Mateo Amador Perez, who came to the U.S. from the Monterrey area of Mexico. Perez has been a legal resident for about a decade, but he's only just taken and passed his citizenship exam.
Benito Juarez is director of immigrant and refugee affairs in the office of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. Juarez's office holds monthly community forums to help legal residents apply for citizenship. He says he's been seeing a lot of people like Perez at those meetings lately.
"In the last one that we had last month," Juarez says, "we asked most of the people that came and that we helped them to process their citizenship application why they were doing that. Almost all of them said, ‘Because I wanted to vote. I wanted to vote in the election.'"
Roughly one in every five Houston residents is an immigrant. The majority of these new arrivals are from Latin America.
Carlos Duarte is the Texas state director of Mi Familia Vota, a group focused on encouraging Latino voter registration.
"By 2020, they are going to be the largest demographic group, and yet they are not participating in public life as heavily as we would need them to," Duarte says.
But there are early indications that 2016 could prove a watershed. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the number of approved citizenship applications from Greater Houston reached 26,598 in fiscal year 2015, the last full year for which records are available. That's up about 45 percent compared to where they stood at the same point in each of the previous two presidential election cycles. For Texas as a whole, the number of applications approved is up 25 percent.
There is typically a spike in naturalization applications for legal residents trying to become citizens in time to participate during presidential election years. However, the numbers from the last full fiscal year (FY 2015, running from Oct. 2014 through Sept. 2015), suggest a much bigger spike in 2016 than in the last two presidential election cycles.
Duarte says this is no coincidence. "We see a lot of energy, legal, permanent residents that have been in the country for 20 years or more and that for the very first time are wanting to become citizens so that they can vote. This is a direct reaction to the anti-immigrant, anti-Latino rhetoric."
Mariana Sanchez heads Bonding Against Adversity. The nonprofit, based in north Houston, offers classes and monthly workshops to help immigrants prepare for their citizenship exams. She says attendance at the group's March event was more than triple the usual.
"They hear from some candidates that if they become president it's going to be more deportation," Sanchez says. "They are going to be sending people back to their countries, screening, and things like that. Therefore, the community doesn't feel safe, not even having the document as a legal resident."
This is exactly what the Republican National Committee was hoping to avoid this year. The RNC conducted an extensive analysis after the party lost the 2012 presidential election. It blamed Republicans' poor showing with Hispanic voters that year squarely on anti-immigrant rhetoric, such presidential candidate Mitt Romney's advocacy of self-deportation.
"Despite Donald Trump's early strength, the reason that there's still ongoing concerns is that party leaders understand that a lot of his incendiary comments could cause long-term damage for the party," says Joe Brettell, a Republican strategist with the Houston office of FleishmanHillard.
The fear is that Latino voters – particularly first time voters, such as newly naturalized citizens – will be lost to the Democrats, not just this election but for many more to come.
Ruthy Muñoz contributed reporting to this story. This story originally posted on April 18, 2016.